United Nations Names Online Privacy That You Probably Don’t Have As A Universal Human Right

Online privacy: it’s a contentious ground between corporations and consumers, a troubled 21st century frontier of expectations, and, apparently, a universal human right.

As we read via Broadband DSL Reports, the United Nations recently adopted a resolution calling out online privacy as a universal human right. The resolution (PDF) expands the UN’s existing stance on privacy to include the digital realm.

The current iteration of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights enumerates 29 general areas of universal rights. The list not only includes topics like freedoms of thought and expression, but also the rights to employment and to education, condemnations of slavery and torture, and the right to privacy, which is explicitly recognized in Article 12.

Article 12 begins, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,” and affirms the right to the protection of the law from any such interference.

UN resolutions and findings are non-binding. Any nation, including member states, can (and always does) have whatever sovereign laws it pleases, whether or not they abide by idealistic universal declarations.

The timing of the resolution, which was adopted late in 2013, seems sure to be related to the cascade of revelations about the NSA’s phone and computer monitoring activities inside and outside of the United States. As an aside in his speech today about those NSA issues, President Obama did announce the formation of a new government group to research big data and the related industry and government privacy implications. The White House fact sheet explains:

This group will consist of government officials who—along with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders, and look at how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.

Th White House announcement also reaffirmed its commitment to the online privacy bill of rights (PDF) it laid out in 2012. While the framework from 2012 is a big step toward consumer protection, its guidance is voluntary, as is compliance. Legally speaking, online privacy in the US is still a messy patchwork of laws, regulations, and hopes for good faith actions from the folks–public and private alike–who gather and hold the data.